I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace. The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat. Is that the real story? Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre? When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.
Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story. They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx. Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death. First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded. In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes. He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.
He is barefoot as the weather is still mild. He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete. This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.
Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat. A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night. They are keeping him prisoner! Him, and his immortal soul! They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him! Satori, the zen enlightenment, comes at odd times.